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The Passion of Anna | The Nation

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The Passion of Anna

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In 1906, a 17-year-old girl named Anna Andreyevna Gorenko told her father, a Ukrainian naval engineer, of her literary aspirations. Faced with the prospect of having a "decadent poetess" in the family, he implored her not to dishonor his name. So she began writing poetry as Anna Akhmatova. The pseudonym stuck.

About the Author

Elif Batuman
Elif Batuman is a doctoral candidate in literature at Stanford University. She is also a contributor to the literary...

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In later life, Akhmatova wrote a four-line poem called "Name": "Dense, Tatar,/It came out of nowhere,/Sticking to any possible misfortune,/It is itself a misfortune." Throughout her career, this self-styled Cassandra predicted horrible disasters, and the disasters really happened; she was pursued in life by the themes from her poetry. But she also had a kind of "white magic," an eye for concrete detail, and an indefatigable interest in life and in other people. These gifts protected her from melodrama, made her a great poet and earned her many friends.

During the Writers' Congress of 1959, Akhmatova was visited in her room at the Metropole Hotel by a strange woman who had come to present her apologies. Not only was this woman's name also Akhmatova, but she too wrote poetry, albeit in Ossetian. Anna received her double graciously and "chatted happily" with her for hours. "The two Akhmatovas got on very well," Nadezhda Mandelstam recalled, "and when her namesake had left, Anna Andreyevna said sadly: 'She's a genuine Akhmatova and I am not.'"

"The two Akhmatovas got on very well": Indeed, Anna Akhmatova got along with everybody. In her old age a thyroid condition made her "catastrophically fat" and destroyed all traces of her youthful beauty; still she was surrounded to the end of her days by young admirers, including Joseph Brodsky. In the words of Nadezhda Mandelstam: "Hordes of women and battalions of men of the most widely differing ages can testify to her great gift for friendship, to a love of mischief which never deserted her even in her declining years, to the way in which, sitting at a table with vodka and zakuski, she could be so funny that everybody fell off their chairs from laughter."

Nadezhda Mandelstam's description could not be more different from Akhmatova's public persona. She was an icon: Cleopatran, tubercular, glamorous, her adopted name inseparable from her image. Everyone knew her high cheekbones and slightly hooded eyes, photographed by Moses Nappelbaum; everyone knew the drawings by Amedeo Modigliani, with their Egyptian simplicity. In the words of her friend and biographer Lydia Chukovskaya, Akhmatova was chiseled by her fate into "a statue of grief, loneliness, pride, courage."

A beautiful poetess writes unhappy love poems about her unhappy love affairs, becomes a symbol of suffering, lives through the Revolution and the Stalinist terror, "repents," abandons her frivolous love poems, takes on big historical subjects, becomes an icon of not just her own suffering but the suffering of her people: This is the received story of Akhmatova's life, a flat before/after trajectory from the aesthetic (and bad) to the ethical (and good). In her disappointing new biography, Anna of All the Russias, Elaine Feinstein basically retells this story, approvingly noting "the transformation of the 'gay little sinner'...into the voice of a whole people's suffering." (Like most of Akhmatova's biographers, Feinstein is also prone to lapse into the unproductive discourses of Soviet-era biographical criticism: Was Akhmatova "only" a bourgeois love poet, or did she have a historical conscience?) It is a fable that does justice neither to Akhmatova's life, with its complexity and change, nor to her richly layered work, with its synthesis of superstition, religion and prophecy, of Greek drama and the Russian novel, of fairy-tale schematism and everyday specificity.

In 1912 Akhmatova published her first book, Evening, and became famous overnight. Her critics immediately divided into polarized camps that would remain intact throughout her career. Many reproached her for her "decadence" and bourgeois domestic subjects--and in fact, some of her early lyrics are a bit too easy to hear in the voice of Marlene Dietrich ("Don't kiss me, I'm tired--/Death will kiss me"; "Oh, how handsome you are, damn you!"). But there were marvels, too. The poet Marina Tsvetaeva surrendered her heart to Akhmatova on the basis of a couplet: "I pulled onto my right hand/The left-hand glove."

As a child Akhmatova had been obsessed with Alexander Blok and the French Symbolists. But in 1911 she, her husband, Nikolia Gumilyov, and a third poet, Osip Mandelstam, were at the forefront of a literary movement called Acmeism, in reaction to that dominant school of Symbolism. Symbolism was based on the mystical theosophy of Vladimir Solovyov and on a mysterious "other world" that could only be unlocked with the keys of poetry: musicality, polysemy and, of course, Symbolism. Mandelstam once objected that the Symbolists found nothing "interesting in itself": The dove was there to symbolize a girl, the girl to symbolize a dove. By contrast, the Acmeists demanded a return to clarity, specificity, the concrete. In one of the first Acmeist poems, "The Giraffe," Gumilyov writes of a giraffe who wanders around Lake Chad. The giraffe doesn't unlock a magic door to another world; its very existence is the magic, proof that reality is vast and marvelous. The poem addresses a depressed Russian woman, possibly Akhmatova herself: "You have breathed in the heavy fog for too long," he tells her. "You don't want to believe in anything but the rain."

Akhmatova once said that "the poet works with the very same words that people use to invite each other to tea." For the Acmeists, poetry was part of the real world, as real as an invitation to tea. In Symbolism, the secret to the universe can't be accessed without the key; in Acmeism, the secret is itself the sum of all the keys.

Akhmatova and Gumilyov's union had always been dramatic--in the unhappy years before their marriage, when she spurned his many proposals, he twice tried to kill himself. In 1912, two years after they finally married, their son Lev was born; he would be raised primarily by Gumilyov's mother in the countryside. After eight years of an open marriage and multiple extramarital affairs, the Gumilyovs divorced in 1918. Akhmatova married a diffident Assyrologist, Vladimir Shileiko, from whom she separated a few years later. In 1925 she became deeply involved with the art critic Nikolai Punin and moved into his apartment, where his wife and daughter also lived. Akhmatova and Punin shared the bedroom for thirteen years, after which she asked Punin's wife to "exchange rooms"; she continued to live in the apartment even after she became involved with her next lover.

In the 1930s Lev came to Petersburg to complete his studies; he lived on and off with the Punins. In 1935 he was arrested for no apparent reason and released a month later, after Akhmatova and Boris Pasternak wrote letters to Stalin on his behalf. Lev was arrested again in 1938 and sentenced to five years in Siberia, where he worked in a copper mine, studied geology and nursed bitter grudges against his mother. During his exile, war broke out and he was sent to the front. In 1940 Akhmatova suffered her first heart attack.

The following autumn she was exiled to Tashkent, where she lived for three years with Nadezhda Mandelstam and read poetry in hospitals. She returned to Leningrad in 1944; when Lev was demobilized in 1945, he rejoined her at the Punins'.

That winter, Akhmatova received several visits from the young Isaiah Berlin. While Berlin was at Akhmatova's apartment, his Oxford undergraduate classmate Randolph Churchill (Winston's son) turned up in the courtyard and started yelling up at the window. Churchill, stationed in Leningrad as a journalist, had heard that his old friend was in town and tracked him to Akhmatova's residence, hoping that Berlin could accompany him to his hotel and translate a request to the staff involving some caviar and an icebox. In later years, Berlin was embarrassed by Akhmatova's conviction that "by the mere fact of [their] meeting," they had "started the cold war and thereby changed the history of mankind." But Stalin's paranoid imaginative genius really did make much of this episode. Within days of Berlin's departure, the NKVD came to Akhmatova's apartment and ostentatiously installed a microphone in her ceiling. In 1946 her poetry was officially banned by the Central Committee of the Communist Party; in 1949 both Punin and Lev were arrested. Hoping to improve her son's lot, Akhmatova wrote a propagandistic cycle, In Praise of Peace (1950). Stalin was unmoved. Only in 1956, three years after Stalin's death, was Lev released. Akhmatova died ten years later in a convalescent home near Moscow.

The received narrative of Akhmatova's life is based largely on her poem "Requiem" (1935-40), in which she portrays herself as waiting for news of Lev like Mary after the Crucifixion: "Where the silent Mother stood, there/No one glanced and no one would have dared." (The poem greatly irritated Lev, who, after all, had survived the gulag; he later remarked that it would have been better for his mother's poetry if he had been killed.) In the most frequently quoted passage, Akhmatova ruefully remembers her carefree youth: "You should have been shown, you mocker," she writes, "Gay little sinner of Tsarskoye Selo,/What would happen in your life--/How three-hundredth in line, with a parcel,/You would stand by the Kresty prison."

In their old age, Akhmatova and Mandelstam periodically engaged in a contest of suffering: Akhmatova would say that compared with her troubles, Pasternak's problems were a mere "battle of butterflies"; Mandelstam would counter that Akhmatova's problems were trivial compared with the sufferings of herself and her husband. It's bad enough when poets compete over who suffered more, but it's incomparably worse when, fifty years later, critics take up the debate. Alas, in Anna of All the Russias, Feinstein unabashedly argues that the value of a poem depends on how much world-historical suffering it sublimates.

Feinstein rehashes the tired comparisons between Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva, making much of the former's physical frailty and the latter's hardiness. "Unlike Akhmatova," she writes, Tsvetaeva "was able to saw wood, light fires, wash potatoes in icy water." In their own lifetimes, such comparisons had irked both poets. "I can do everything," Akhmatova archly informed Lydia Chukovskaya one evening. "And if I don't do it, it's just out of spite."

Yet for Feinstein, Akhmatova was frail and beautiful, Tsvetaeva robust and tomboyish; Akhmatova was restrained, Tsvetaeva wild. "Akhmatova kept her dignity even in the face of tragedy; Tsvetaeva showed her emotions nakedly," Feinstein writes--a statement so simplistic as to mean barely anything at all. And Feinstein contradicts it, in a discussion of Evening: "Although [Akhmatova] cleverly hides which man her poems were written about and may well have collapsed several figures into one, all the lyrics expose undignified emotions." It is strange enough for a biographer to accuse a lyric poet of undignified emotions; it is even stranger, given Feinstein's overall investment in Akhmatova's dignity. Worse, this observation reveals Feinstein's belief that Akhmatova's poems were all written for various men, and that her job as biographer is to determine what was written for whom--a fundamentally antagonistic exercise, an effort to "expose" what Akhmatova had been able to "cleverly hide."

Feinstein makes a pretense of scholarly evenhandedness, dropping phrases like "a biographer must acknowledge" and unconvincingly playing devil's advocate ("[These lines] could, of course, be read to imply quite unfairly that Gumilyov was himself a sadist"), all the while practicing the most tiresome form of literary analysis: Is this poem about Boris or Vladimir? Was it "composed after a marital quarrel?" Or does it tell us whether she had sex with Modigliani? At one point, unable to decide which man a given poem is based on, Feinstein concludes: "It is as if she has infused the poem with her own disappointment, and given it fictional intensity." Well, yes--that's what poets do.

This kind of analysis is all too typical of the genre of literary biography--as is, in my experience, her extremely poor command of rhetoric. Feinstein writes "however" when she means "moreover"; the supporting sentences do not support the topic sentences. Her syntax is so convoluted that even very short sentences require multiple readings ("In those queues the February Revolution of 1917 which deposed the Tsar was born"). Her word choice verges on the bizarre: Hitler, she writes, "ingested Austria and Czechoslovakia"; elsewhere she claims that Akhmatova "did not approve the Nietzschean idea of an elect beyond Good and Evil"--as if the thing had turned up on her desk one morning to be rubber-stamped. (Feinstein doesn't approve the Nietzschean ideal either, and describes Akhmatova and her friends as "amoral"; of the period between 1917 and 1919, she writes, "these two years of Akhmatova's life were at once frivolous and amoral.")

Akhmatova's life is fascinating material, but Feinstein doesn't seem particularly interested in it. There is scarcely anything resembling "local color": Petersburg, Moscow, the Black Sea all come across like empty stage sets. Paris, we learn, contains the Eiffel Tower, the Latin Quarter, the Ballets Russes, some fruit and vegetable stands, and Modigliani; but where is the Paris Akhmatova wrote about, the city redolent of "petrol and lilacs"? Tashkent gets barely two sentences, and yet Akhmatova had never been so watchful as during her Central Asian exile. "She notices far more than I do," Chukovskaya recorded on the train to Uzbekistan:

She keeps pointing things out to me.... "An eagle!... It's landed on that mountain over there! Look--a river, it's yellow!"... Blue carriages of the Moscow metro, buried under the snow. Eagle-eyed Anna Andreevna pointed them out to me.

Feinstein's description of Tashkent--"Brown-skinned women offered oriental sweetmeats and flat white loaves of bread in an eastern marketplace"--is reminiscent of the worst kind of Symbolism, with its vague exoticism and banal color scheme. Just Akhmatova's luck, I thought, to find a biographer who is a Symbolist--or perhaps one who is simply boring. Feinstein doesn't write a single specific sentence about Moscow, but she devotes these three to the science of Akhmatova's heart condition: "Angina is a symptom of a condition called myocardial ischemia. It occurs when the heart muscle (myocardium) does not get as much blood (hence as much oxygen) as it needs. This usually happens because one or more of the heart's arteries is narrowed or blocked."

What local color there is in this book is supplied by Feinstein's Britishness, the understatement and stiff upper lip, most evident in the descriptions of the war years. She writes that 1938 was "a long, terrible year." Hitler's invasion was "swift and merciless"; "Stalin was astonished and appalled" by the French nonresistance; "Akhmatova was altogether dispirited." British patriotism flashes through at unlikely moments. Feinstein objects, for example, to Akhmatova's description of her father's mistress as "practically a hunchback": "This was cruel and unfair, because in fact Yelena Andreyevna was an unusual woman, and attended Oxford University."

Feinstein's biography is presumably intended to replace or supplement Roberta Reeder's 1994 Poet and Prophet; in a pinch, I would still go for the Reeder. Reeder's account is more lucid and detailed, and her translations are more literal. To my ear, they sound better as well. It's not that Feinstein had no reason to write her book. New materials have surfaced since 1994, notably the Moscow Memoirs of Emma Gerstein, Lev Gumilyov's friend and lover, as well as memoirs by Vladimir Garshin and Akhmatova's friend the comic actress Faina Ranevskaya. But Feinstein's taste for dreary household squabbles, of which there was no shortage in the days of cramped communal apartments, prevents her from deriving anything interesting from these memoirs. She is too set on trying to resolve hopeless questions, like whether Lev was justified in his "passionate bitterness" toward his mother.

In closing, let us turn to the million-dollar question: Akhmatova's relationship to history. History made its grand entrance in Akhmatova's work as early as 1922, in her fifth book, Anno Domini MCMXXI. The first poem, "Petrograd, 1919," transposes the familiar Akhmatova fairy-tale landscape onto the topos of the Russian Civil War: "And locked in this savage capital,/We have forgotten forever/The lakes, the steppes, the towns,/And the dawn of the great motherland./Day and night in the bloody circle/A brutal languor overcomes us."

A "bloody circle" has been drawn around Petrograd, and the citizens are captive, spellbound: They have forgotten everything outside. As Gumilyov and his giraffe expanded the world beyond the fog and rain, so does Akhmatova expand the world beyond the bloody circle. In "MCMXXI," she writes of "new constellations" appearing in the skies: "How near the miraculous draws/To the dirty tumbledown huts."

The difficulty of separating, let alone hierarchizing, the densely intertwined themes of love and history in Akhmatova's work was perhaps best expressed by the poet and critic Anatoly Naiman:

Akhmatova believed that history made no distinction between a personal and a public event. The separation of lovers, while intensely private, is--on a wider level--part of history. From such a separation--the separation of Dido and Aeneas--Rome itself was created.

Indeed, Anno Domini MCMXXI is really "about" the same underlying sense of wrongness as Evening--the left glove on the right hand--but this time we are on the level of the city, rather than of the individual house. "A monstrous rumor roams the city," writes Akhmatova, "Stealing into houses, like a thief": The rumor turns out to be related to Bluebeard, with his secret bloody room, a variation on the theme of "Red Terror."

Akhmatova's "historically" themed poems are not a body of work separate from her love poems. As Lydia Chukovskaya wrote in 1940, Akhmatova's poetry is saturated by "awareness of oneself and one's fate within Russian culture, within the history of mankind and Russia: Pushkin, Dante, Shakespeare, Petersburg, Russia, the war"; her gift is an inability to write about love "without showing the reader, with absolute precision, the exact moment on the map of history." As poetry is, for the Acmeists, "merely" a subset of language, the poet is a subset of the world, a citizen in the world. The life of the poet--including, as lives do, love--is a subset of history.

Perhaps Akhmatova's name really was a "misfortune," a Fury that pursued her, despite her efforts to hide from it. The statuesque beauty of her person and her verses was so often admired that she finally became a statue: "Akhmatova." In "Requiem" she grants permission for a monument to be built in her honor someday, on the condition that it stand not by the Black Sea or in Tsarskoye Selo but outside the Leningrad prison: "Here, where I stood for three hundred hours,/And where they never unbolted the doors for me." Like Don Giovanni, she got her wish. She is now frozen in memory as, to use two of Tsvetaeva's famous phrases, "Anna of all the Russias" and "a poet without history."

But in fact a web of history stretched above, below and all around Akhmatova. You don't necessarily perceive it in "Requiem," with its heavyhanded religious symbolism. But it's there in "Northern Elegies," in the reconstruction of "Dostoevsky's Russia": "The moon,/Almost a quarter hidden by the bell tower.... And magnificent coffins: 'Shumilov Senior.'" You sense it in the juxtaposition of Dostoyevsky's Petersburg with Akhmatova's Petrograd: "The country shivers, and the convict from Omsk/Understood everything, and made the sign of the cross over it all." And it's in "Poem Without a Hero," Akhmatova's masterpiece, whose narrator greets the New Year of 1941 at a masked ball, with a "Guest from the Future," representing Isaiah Berlin, and an unnamed poet, "contemporary with the Mamre oak." Surely, this is how we should remember Akhmatova: not as a statue of Mary outside the Leningrad prison but in living dialogue with the Guest from the Future, the convict from Omsk and the Mamre oak. "The box has a triple bottom," Akhmatova wrote, and it was true of her poetry as well as her life.

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